Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Ask the Moon: The case of the disappearing litmag



Since Nancy Drew solved The Secret of the Old Clock and The Mystery of the 99 Steps, maybe we can turn to her to solve the case of the missing literary journal.

My friend Leslie writes to Ask the Moon this question:

What I'm wondering about is the sometimes ephemerality of online publication. I have at least two stories that have disappeared—one they just aren't archiving that far back, another defunct. I love the part of online that means I get readers, of course, but once the story disappears, it really disappears. No trace—not even cache. I would be interested in your editorial take on that.

Book people sometimes fetishize paper editions—the feel of them, the smell of the ink, the way their spines line up on shelves. But one thing that is irrefutably true about books is that they are physical artifacts that commemorate a publication. We can hold them in our hands, mail them to our moms, pass them around a room.

While I like how my print publications look on the shelf, I really prefer online publications these days. I’m never going to run into my college friends and pull a Laurel Review from my purse, mainly because it’s a small purse, I have far-flung friends, and I like to keep my prized contributor’s copy of The Laurel Review in good condition. But I do enjoy posting a link on social media, and my friends still may not read the thing, but they’re generous with a “like” or a “favorite.”

Leslie brings up a huge drawback to online publishing, though, and that is the uncertainty of the archives. My very first publication was in a small literary magazine out of Illinois called Farmer’s Market. Farmer’s Market no longer exists as a magazine, but my copy exists. It’s on my shelf, and it’s a physical reminder of when I started to fully identify as a writer. I treasure it.

Mind you, I don’t insist on paper. But I don’t want my online publications to disappear, as Leslie reports happening with hers. When we publish online, we like to believe that there will always be a marker online, one that we can return to at any point or refer readers to as the need arises.

In the past here, I’ve mentioned the problem caused by dilettante editors who dabble in literary journals with great enthusiasm and success—until they decide they’re over it. So many people are graduating with MFAs and PhDs in creative writing, and there are far fewer academic jobs than candidates for them. These folks look to find a toehold in the literary world, and they find that publishing a journal is a positive use of their energies. They put out several issues, and they solicit their former classmates and writers they know to ensure that the work is strong. They often show a distinctive vision—something older journals frequently lack—and they use media savvy to build a following. They frequently publish online because it’s cheap or free, and that’s how a new litmag is born.

But then the editors get tired of publishing, and suddenly their journal—named, probably, with a weird-sounding, single-syllable noun—disappears. In other words, Poof! goes poof. Plop! sinks. Jig! pulls a hammie. Nut! cracks up. (My apologies to any real journals that debuted last week or early this morning with any of these names.)

I happen to think that publishing a literary magazine is a calling and a responsibility. Editors owe it to contributors to commit for the long haul, and to ensure that if something happens to them or to the journal, those archives will remain available as a permanent record.

Publishing an author’s work is a profound act of trust, and disappearing without a trace is a violation of that trust.


Sometimes I hear writers and editors complain that there are too many journals. We know that editors think there are too many submitters, crazy as that seems. (Submitters are writers, and I fervently believe that the world needs more writers.) My own take? The more, the merrier—but those who start a magazine must work to secure its future, or they should move over and leave literary work to the real editors.

10 comments:

  1. I remember Farmer's Market! It's on my shelf, too!

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    1. Such a nifty little mag! I'm proud to have been in it. :)

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  2. Yes. This.

    This is why I have such a torn stance on digital ownership, whether ebooks, music, movies, or video games. If I own the physical copy, I'm dependent on myself to not ruin it or the equipment I need to consume the thing (like the video game console or my eyes). With digital ownership, I'm reliant on whoever maintains the server/website/cloud to maintain it or my digital property is gone and not available to me anymore.

    And that doesn't even touch the issue of upgrades and compatible file types. At least when movies upgraded from VHS to DVD, I could still watch my tapes as long as I had a VCR. I'm more than a little nervous about really major upgrades that could use a new file type, rendering old purchases useless.

    I wish books, CDs, and video games would do what a lot of movies do and offer a bundle with the physical and digital copy. It would be so convenient to have my whole library on a tablet, but I'm more concerned about a technology disaster than a fire burning all my books.

    Granted, the lit mags you're talking about wouldn't have a physical copy, too, but I feel like what you're saying about the responsibility to make digital journals always available is tapping directly into my digital ownership anxieties. I'm slowly embracing it with video games (because I don't have a choice) and I'm counting on the Internet to provide me with emulators to run my current content when Microsoft and Nintendo no longer support it a few console generations down the road.

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    1. You expand the issue so beautifully, Steven -- this is relevant to much more than just litmags. We're putting a lot of faith in a whole economy that has shown no indication it will reward it. Sort of a depressing though, isn't it?

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  3. Check out the Wayback Machine at archive.org. I've been able to find most of my defunct-site publications there.

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    1. Thanks for that suggestion!

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    2. Thank goodness for the Wayback Machine. Prior to Oxford American's last website-redesign, I had five essays published as part of their online-only content, none of which made it over into their archives of the redesigned site. I still consider that a breach of archival/editorial responsibility, but at least the Wayback Machine gave me a way to link to those essays from my own site, prove that it was real.

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    3. I wasn't really familiar with the Wayback Machine -- thanks for the lead where that is concerned. Totally agree about the breach of archival responsibility. Ignorance, maybe, to blame?

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  4. Thanks for this; well said. Indeed online is the place to be if a writer wants readers, and indeed the issue raised is an important one. Perhaps entities such as Duotrope should at least require acceptance of a publishing ethics statement prior to allowing a listing. The Wayback Machine is a good backup means to preserve all work published online.

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    1. It really is an ethical issue -- but we're in an era of a lot of casual editors who aren't greatly aware of the history and purpose of publishing. Remember when litmags used to publish indexes of past issues (pre-Internet, obviously)? There's no memory of cherishing and preserving the archives among a lot of current editors.

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